Tag Archives: African-American young adult literature

Redeeming the Redheaded Child of Black Culture

Image found on Google images

Image found on Google images

Redeeming the Redheaded Child of Black Culture

(creatively presenting theory, practice, & views through a fictional tale)

The estate lies behind iron gates and pointed pine trees. In the dining hall, the cadence of the tarp-covered drums collides with the harp.  Each instrument forces each other’s notes inside its staffs. The contact yields a composition of cacophony. It produces pidgin notes that later evolve into creoles, a living language raising the ire of the majority, yet validating the other.

If only the harp would invoke Clotho to spin a thread of life for the wayward drum-child to coexist, Lachesis to measure enough string to accommodate, and Atropos to angle away her shears.

If only the Fates could determine the destiny of Black English, the redheaded stepchild of Black culture hidden in the estate’s basement.

Instead, the bastard child of the English language is the centerpiece of the family’s conversation.

One side declares that Black English, aka BE, overturns the building blocks of “proper” language into a disarray of incomprehensible slang and butchered sentences.

Her speech must function as a silk slip and conceal her underlying background. She is pure gibberish that should be locked up. Her language isolates her in the classroom, drawing the focus on how she speaks instead of what she has to say.

Grandpère James Baldwin taps out ashes to a jazz tune that only he hears. He laments how his ma chérie cannot be free.  Her syllables expose truth. Her grandmère, Barbara Christian, cautions that literature has allowed BE to play in Hurston’s yard. She flits around her characters and collects colloquialisms like butterflies. BE is a narrative of survival and a lens for meaning-making. Her identity should not be dictated by a group of critics.

One of the guests, Shelly Ellis, author of the Gibbons Gold Digger series, suggests that Hurston’s sole literary purpose for BE is to authenticate the region in which her characters reside.  Hurston keeps her literary yard neat with all of the writing elements in their rightful places.

Diamond Drake, author of Love’s Fool, worries about how others may misunderstand BE.  When international fans read her novel, the stepchild causes them to miss some of its meaning.  She welcomes BE, only when the storyline and the characters demand it.

Keisha Rogers-Rucker, a poet and photographer, believes BE should come out when friends clink wine glasses around plates of shrimp kabobs–not when she enters the cubicles of the corporate world. The problem is not if BE can master the standards of English; the problem is if people want to understand who she is.

The other side makes a decision.  If writers can invite Black English into their worlds, then she can exist in certain social contexts. She is an intricate part of the culture. BE can serve as a text for language inquiry.  Literature has now redeemed her.

Both sides remain at a standstill as BE hopscotches out of the basement.  Grandpère retreats back to Giovanni’s Room while Grandmère chuckles out loud, “Oh, let the child BE.”

Teaching Implication:

Studying different dialects in the context of literature gives teachers the opportunity to teach inquiry and critical reading.  By examining the use of language in classic & contemporary literature and young adult literature, students can move beyond the surface of a text and learn its deeper shades of meaning. Students can also examine the representation of language in any culture.

Teaching Resources:

Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is? “http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-english.html

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory”  (a suggestion for a way to read literature critically through the social constructs of language, gender, race/culture, class, and power structures instead of traditional literary theory)


5 Components of a Language-


Fecho, Bob.  “Critical Inquiries into Language in an Urban Classroom”  http://www.devonfralston.com/eng304b/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/fecho.pdf

Webquest:  “Cultural Connections:  From Senegal  and West Africa to Your Classroom”  http://www.cultureconnections.org/resources/curriculum-artifact-boxes/02-language-policy-literacy/web-quests/language-policy-web-quest.html

Webquest: “Exploring Dialect”  http://zunal.com/webquest.php?w=109776

Wolfram, Walt.  “Social Identity”  PBS segment.  http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/sociolinguistics/socialbehavior/

Authors Who Have Used Dialect in Their YAL or Literature for Teens

Sharon Flake

Nikki Grimes

Nini Simone

Kelli London

Mildred Taylor

Walter Dean Myers

Rita Williams-Garcia

Lori Aurelia Williams

Kelli London

Virginia Euwer Wolff

Angela Johnson

Christopher Paul Curtis

Earl Sewell

Coe Booth

Janet McDonald

Kalisha Buckhanon

Learn More about Shelly Ellis & Diamond Drake:

Shelly Ellis   http://shellyellisbooks.com/

Diamond Drake  http://www.diamonddrakebooks.com/

Let me hear from you!

How do you encourage language inquiry in your classroom? 

Writers, what role does language play in character development and your writing?


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When Variables Unbalance the Equations of Teenage Love & Life: My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

If I could only rearrange and eliminate

the variables of hit-and-miss relationships

to achieve the perfect balance.

–By Alexandra Caselle

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

Like a moth to a flame

Burned by the fire

My love is blind

Can’t you see my desire?

That’s the way love goes

–“That’s the Way Love Goes” by Janet Jackson

Image Courtesy of Google Images

Image Courtesy of Google Images

First love is like a Goody’s powder:

All that ails you goes away,

giddiness bubbles up inside,

the calm before the storm.

Then the effects wear off.

–By Alexandra Caselle


rhombus 2     My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson. 2007, Woodbury, MN:  Flux. ISBN13:  978-0-7387-1160-7.

Teen angst involves Mother Nature’s cruel joke of puberty:

Gangly arms grazing against the ground.  Boys’ voices echoing in alternating crescendos of thunder booming and frogs croaking after a summer rain. Fitting rooms brimming over with World War III battles of the hems between mothers and daughters.

Then Mother Nature wanted to add hormones to the mix.

Falling in love for the first time derails and disrupts.

If adolescents only knew that the first relationship creates a lens in which they will view every future, intimate connection.  It will propel them like caterpillars into a cocoon where they will eventually break out and transform into a monarch butterfly—each tear, each experience, each emotional, mental, and spiritual scar imprinted on the mosaic of their wings.

The next significant other bound by the coordinates on the x(ex)-y axis.

With Rhonda, she chooses to rely on the “comfort in the exactness of math and the precision of science (pg. 33)” to prevent future heartbreaks.  The whirlwind of fun, fumbling sex and the flowing legato of game ends when Rhonda gets pregnant.  Christopher’s choir boy image risks the chance of being marred not only socially, but physically by his father’s pummeling fists.

Rhonda’s dad decides to take her to Atlanta to end her pregnancy.  Rhonda returns home to focus her energies on studying and tutoring in the local college’s program. It isn’t until one of the most popular girls waltzes in with trig problems and baby issues of her own that Rhonda realizes that she may not have been totally sure of her father’s decision.

So the overlapping of Sarah’s problems into Rhonda’s life blurs the lines of order. Having a crush on Sarah’s brother, David, does not help the situation.

David is the inverse of Christopher, but Rhonda continuously wants to label him as a jerk like her ex, Christopher. She can’t deny the way she feels.  She soon realizes that she must see herself through a different angle before she can explore all of the contours of real love that David can offer.

There is an element of surprise when the father of Sarah’s baby is revealed. This climactic event also places David in conflict with Christopher.

Johnson’s writing style really draws the reader in. Throughout my reading of the novel, I thought Varian Johnson was a female.  He depicts each character with such deft detail, especially the way he is able to place himself inside the thoughts and emotions of a teenage girl in a predicament like Rhonda’s.  The reader can actually feel the steely personality of Rhonda and Christopher’s mother, Judge Gamble.  Forget about Miranda on The Devil Wears Prada and the mother in Mommie Dearest.

Dare I say, that this writer who has always been plagued by math anxiety thoroughly enjoyed the blend of math and literature.  Some areas of his book helped me, the mathematically challenged, understand some concepts through his writing.

And those adolescents who love numbers like writers love words (those extraordinary individuals affectionately dubbed as “blerds” or “nerds” by today’s social media communities) will enjoy Johnson’s use of word problems, graphs, Venn diagrams, geometry, and other mathematic functions to describe the complexities of Rhonda’s, Sarah’s, and David’s lives as the plot advances.

Johnson also dispels the stereotype that boys excel in math and sciences. Here, he portrays a young, African American girl who loves these subjects and plans to study a major.  Adolescent girls need to read about Rhonda so they can be motivated to enter those fields.

Through the language of mathematics, Rhonda breaks down the language of recovery: healing from the past, manipulating the variables of relationships between parents and children, and discovering new postulates of friendship and romance through Sarah and David Gamble.  She draws new boundaries of intersecting life lines.

The rhombus also becomes a significant symbol because of the way Rhonda negatively boxes her identity into it, but she inverts its meaning into something more defining and beautiful.

This book would be a great read-aloud for English/ reading classes and all levels of math classes.  It provides many opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching. Math teachers could also use the problems in the book to simplify the concepts behind the actual mathematical functions.  English teachers can show how mathematics can be used to tell stories mathematically and figuratively. It also will fit nicely into a Southern literature unit, high school or college-level, since Johnson sets the story in South Carolina.  Teachers can discuss how the characters and the themes/topics challenge or confirm Southern mores and how they compare to today’s Southern culture.

Since My Life as a Rhombus deals with handling different types of math, people and situations, teachers can bring the kinesthetic into the classroom and make the reading of this novel more concrete by participating in “The Marshmallow Challenge:”http://www.productivemindset.com/problem-solving/team-building-with-the-marshmallow-challenge/.

I participated in this activity in a team-building training. It challenged my perspective on how our imagination and thinking processes change as we progress from kindergarteners to adults.

My Life as a Rhombus will also challenge readers’ perceptions of mathematics, romance, and tough decisions.

Text-to-Text Connections— Romance & Relationships in African American Young Adult Literature (YAL)

jason and kyra   Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson

played   Played by Dana Davidson

a teenage love affair  Teenage Love Affair  by Ni-Ni Simone

boyfriend diaries  The Break-Up Diaries by Ni-Ni Simone and Kelli London

breakup diaries   The Break-Up Diaries Vol. 2  by Nikki Carter & Kevin Elliott

chasing romeo  Chasing Romeo  by A. J. Byrd

kelli london  Boyfriend Season by Kelli London

love on 145th street  What They Found on 145th Street  by Walter Dean Myers

romietteRomiette and Julio by Sharon Draper

born Born Blue by Han Nolan

woodsonIf You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

Can you suggest any other YAL romances that can be paired with this book?

COMING UP IN BOOK REVIEWS (Yes, Virginia, there are African-American YAL paranormal books. They do exist!):  Ninth Ward  by Jewel Parker Rhodes, Asleep by Wendy Raven McNair, & Orleans by Sherri L. Smith


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Urban Rhapsody: The Love Song of Cyan and Kendall (Serial Story#2)

cyan & kendall

Click the following link if you would like to read the first installment, told from Kendall’s point-of-view, before you continue with Cyan’s story written below.



I had no compassion for my daughter, Kendall.

It exited stage left six years ago after a near-fatal car accident, the shards of the windshield glass piercing my body.  The scars healed into a haphazard pattern of Orion’s belt.

Kenny, my late husband and Kendall’s father, used to stare up at the night sky on humid summer nights and pick out the constellations.  It’s funny how on the night he steered our car into a path of oncoming traffic on I-4, with Kendall crying out for help in the back seat, Orion’s constellation was the last thing I saw before my consciousness flickered out.

Orion must have shot his arrow through our car’s windshield.

Kenny wasn’t quite right in the head when he came back from Afghanistan.  I knew it, but I tried to love it out of him. I couldn’t love the craziness out of him, so I gave up on loving.  It was overrated, just like Kendall’s ranting and raving over me going out.

Now that I thought about it, her behavior was reminding me of Kenny.  But she was no war veteran.  She was just a thirteen-year-old, trying to be too fresh and smell herself. I slid my cigarette between my lips and blew a cloud of smoke into her face, daring her to speak, forcing her to move back.

Kendall coughed and leaned against the armoire.  Her chest heaved in huffs.

I repeated my question.   “When did you get grown?”

Kendall regained her breath and said, “A year after Dad’s death when you left me home alone for two weeks.”  She pointed to the long, black burn mark that began at her hand and wrapped around her forearm. Kendall said,  “Little kids should get nicks and scratches from playing outside, not playing house.”

I didn’t have time for this.  I pried Jamila’s claws from digging into my ankles and tossed her on the bed and moved back in front of the mirror. I smoothed down my side-swept bang with hair gel and pinned the middle section of my hair into a beehive hump.  “You survived. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and teaches you to fend for yourself.”

That’s what I wished my parents would have done for me.  We stayed in one of those subdivisions in Southeast Orlando off Curry Road not too far from Lake Underhill.  My parents sent me to a private school and gave me the best of everything in life.  I had no responsibilities.  I was an only child, and their wish for me was to go to college and make something out of my life.  I fell in love with Kenny and got pregnant at seventeen.

Kenny and I got married at the courthouse, and he entered the U.S. Navy shortly after graduation. I dropped out of high school and became a Navy wife living on the base.  I depended on him for everything.  If I had thought about myself, I wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital fighting for my life. I wouldn’t have ended up here.

Kendall rocked Jamila in her arms.  She looked like a younger version of me, those nights when Kenny was out to sea, a child trying to quell the cries of a colicky newborn, the blind leading the blind.  Jamila drifted off to sleep. Kendall propped two pillows on the bed with one hand and laid the two-year-old on top of them with the other.

The corner of the picture frame hanging above the bed poked Kendall in the forehead as she stood up. She brushed her fingers along the blown-up, black-and-white photograph of her and me.  We took the picture and sent it to Kenny a month after she was born.  He was such a proud papa when the boat pulled into port, waving that 3×5 in his hand and rushing us the next day to the neighborhood photographer’s studio to get it done the way it hung on my wall now.

I heard three short beeps of Ray’s car horn followed by one loud, drawn-out one.  Loverboy is quite the impatient one.

I opened my Louis Vutton purse, the one my gentleman caller downstairs gave me, straightened out the crumpled $20 bill and said, “ Kendall, it is almost 11p.m.  Get Troy off that devilish Xbox and send him to the store up the street.  Get some of that honey ham lunchmeat, a loaf of bread and anything else you can think of to hold all of you until I come back tomorrow.”

I could have sworn that I heard Kendall sniffle.  She hasn’t cried since the day of the accident. Kendall yanked the photo down and smashed it against the nightstand. Here we go, I thought, more theatrics before I head out.  I said, “Kendall, have you lost your mind?”

Kendall snatched the money out of my hand and stormed out of the room and said, “No, only my mother.”

Before I could catch her, she had already slammed and locked her bedroom door.  I said, “You better have that mess cleaned up before I get back.”

As I sat in the passenger seat, I immediately forgot about what just happened and who I was. The way I had always dealt with my life.

Copyrighted and All Rights Reserved to Alexandra Caselle.  This is an original young adult story.


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Persevering Like Palm Trees in the Wind of Adversity: The Boy from Willow Bend by Joanne C. Hillhouse

boy blog

Red Wines in Antiguan Nights

By Alexandra Caselle

I’m Tanty’s beloved—

tattooed with his mark, red

wine welts on my skin.

They hum and vibrate.

They channel the other spirits,

women I have lost.

My nerves convulse with

synapses of energy,

the call of nature.

Wind rustles through trees,

earthen vessel flooded by

eternal kisses.

Light particles, dust

specks swirl into a tribe,

chanting soucouyants*.

Words flow from their lips,

an all-healing salve, soothing

my prism of pain.

Daydream disperses

like dandelion flurries.

I rub red wine welts,

left by grandaddy’s belt.

His drunken rage, Tanty’s tales

One remains; one gone.

Whisper those four words:

I’m Tanty’s beloved.  Nothing.

Inside , I’m crying.

*soucouyant = [a] woman who is said to have the ability to remove her skin and transform herself into a ball of fire which glides through the night in search of a sleeping victim whose blood she sucks. (word taken from glossary found in the back of Hillhouse’s book)


Image taken from Google Images–(original source) http://www.365antigua.com/arts/literature/BoyFromWillowBendRedux.php




Hillhouse, Joanne C. The Boy from Willow Bend. Turnaround: 2009. 978-1906190293. 95pgs.

Vere Joseph Carmino is a young Antiguan boy enamored by stories.  As The Boy from Willow Bend begins, he is enchanting Kim, one of his first crushes, and others with a tale.  He gets the love of stories from his grandmother, Tanty.  The musicality of the authentic, Antiguan language resonates like wind dipping in and out of multicolored bottle trees as Tanty scolds Vere for not being in the house before dark:

   “Vere Joseph Carmino, why you won’t take telling? I tell you make sure you find yourself home before night fall, an’ every night you come running down the road after dark like some devil chasin’ you.  Then you still expect to go back an’ watch TV.  You best haul your tail inside ‘fore I get vex.”

Tanty envelops Vere into a nurturing warmth and love that is missing from his life.  His mother is gone, and his grandfather only shows affection through physical abuse.  He spends his pension check on alcohol, and Vere’s grandmother has to find odd jobs to maintain a small cushion of money for Vere’s needs.  But soon Tanty is gone and she becomes one of the many women, Makeba the Rasta Queen, Kim, and Elisabeth who abandons him.

Imagine being a youth with no one for support, only a drunk grandfather who takes out his frustration on you.  Imagine handling all of this turmoil while trying to survive poverty.  But Vere survives and develops an inner strength that frees him from his situation.

Vere’s story may take place in Antigua, but the problems he experiences are universal. The book is a great resource to discuss those experiences in the classroom and learn about different cultures and language.  Language inquiry offers adolescents to study language through a network of social constructs such as gender, power structures, race/culture, and class.  It also provides them with an opportunity to study the structure of language linguistically.  Students can examine the lexicon/vocabulary, morphology, phonetics, syntax, rhetorical features, and pragmatic nature of the Antiguan language.

They realize that different languages and dialects are more than just “slang.”

Hillhouse includes an Antiguan glossary in the back of her book, which could be used to introduce the language study. Through language inquiry, teachers will instill an appreciation for language diversity.

The Boy From Willow Bend brings two classroom activities to mind.

When I first started teaching 7th grade Language Arts in Orlando, back in 1996, I taught a multicultural literature unit called Around the Literary World in 9 Weeks.  After reading and discussing several short stories from the literature anthology, I had students to research a country, create a brochure advertising the culture, share a poem or short story by a writer from that country, bring in food indicative of the culture, and choose another activity from a list to represent their research.

During the day of the presentations, I remember how I did not think about all of the specifics dealing with the food aspect of this group project.  For each of the six periods, I had to run downstairs to the faculty lounge, heat up food, and haul it back to the classroom.  It was worth it because some students who were from some of the countries felt pride sharing their culture with their classmates. All in all, everyone, including other teachers who popped in for a bite, enjoyed it.

The Boy From Willow Bend offers an opportunity for this type of project.  Students can research Antigua and other Caribbean countries in a thematic unit.

Another activity allows students to engage in creative writing by writing prepositional poems.  I learned about prepositional poems from a Florida professional development workshop.  Students used books they have read, pictures, or any kind of prompt to write a short poem in which each line begins with a preposition. Students wrote the final drafts on construction paper and decorated the border with scraps of fabric.

Students reading Hillhouse’s book can write prepositional poems about Antigua, a place in the book, or something else from a character’s point-of-view. They can use any type of material from a crafts store to create a mosaic as a background for their poetry. Teachers can also have the students each write a poem that can be combined into one class poem. To introduce the activity, teachers may want to construct examples, write each line on sentence strips, and allow students to put them together in poems.  Afterwards, they have students create their own prepositional poems.

Here is one that I wrote for The Boy From Willow Bend:

In front of the emerald green waters

On top of the pearl white sands

Inside the grove of palm trees

Behind the shanties

Down the dark road

At the dead end

Against the brick wall stands Vere, looking

for a way out.

Here is another one written by someone else:

Above us all a star

with shiny silver reflections.

Over all the mountains it glares.

Onto the water it shines.

Through the trees it glows.

Throughout the sky it’s seen.

From my window

During the night I see a star.

To learn more about additional themes in The Boy From Willow Bend, Althea Romeo-Mark has written an in-depth critical analysis of Hillhouse’s book here:http://aromaproductions.blogspot.com/2012/03/from-dead-end-alley-to-willow-bend.html


For more information about language study and inquiry, please see the article, “Feeling the Rhythm of the Critically Conscious Mind” in The English Journal Vol. 93, No. 3 (Jan., 2004), pp. 58-63.

Author Information

“Five Questions for Joanne C. Hillhouse”


Text-to-Text Connections

Here are more examples of Caribbean young adult and contemporary novels, short stories, and nonfiction that can be used with The Boy From Willow Bend in a thematic unit.  I have also included poems from American poets that would fit into some of the literary themes.  Even though City of Beasts is set in the Amazon rainforest, I still think it would fit into a thematic unit involving these works.

fresh girlFresh Girl  by Jaira Placide

behind the mountains Behind the Mountains  by Edwidge Danticat

before we were free Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

esmeralda santiagoWhen I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

city of the beasts City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

annie johnAnnie John by Jamaica Kincaid

brother i'm dyingBrother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

flight to freedomFlight to Freedom by Ana Veciana-Suarez

cuba 15  Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa

browngirl, BrownstonesBrown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

krik krak Krik?Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

in darknessIn Darkness by Nick Lake

“Parsley” by Rita Dove http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172128

“Harlem Dancer” by Claude McKay  http://www.poetry-archive.com/m/the_harlem_dancer.html

“NaPoWriMo: Poems 4-6”  by Stacia L. Brown  http://stacialbrown.com/2011/04/08/napowrimo-poems-4-6/


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A Deeper Story Lies Underneath: The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake


failure of an invention

by Safiya Henderson-Holmes

i am not any of the faces

you have put on me America

every mask has slipped

i am not any of the names

or sounds you have called me

the tones have nearly

made me deaf

this dark skin, both of us

have tried to bleach

i can smell the cancer.

this thick hair, these thick lips

both of us have tried to narrow

begging entrance through

the needle of your eye

some of me broken

in the squeeze

and even as i carry

a bone of yours in my back

your soul America no matter what we’ve tried

I’ve never been able to bear

color2Flake, Sharon. The Skin I’m In. Perfection Learning: 2007. 978-0756984687.

Maleeka Madison is a young girl who is not comfortable in her own skin.  She is teased by her peers for her skin color and her handmade clothes.  It isn’t until an English teacher named Miss Saunders comes along and teaches her to acknowledge the beauty on the inside and the outside.  Miss Saunders has a condition known as vitiligo.  It causes her skin to look imperfect in others’ eyes.  But Miss Saunders does not let what others think bother her.  She tries to get Maleeka to feel the same way, but Maleeka is trying to fit in with the in crowd.  The in crowd clowns Miss Saunders every day, so Maleeka follows suit.  As Maleeka digs deeper into a writing assignment that entails the diary of a slave girl, she begins the quest of loving herself.

This novel works well on many levels.  There is a cultural connection.  The color complex is a social and cultural construct that is unfortunately included in the fabric of many cultures.  The historical implications of the light vs. dark have sown many weeds into a person’s self-esteem.  In African American literature, the issue of color has been around since Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry & Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Flake’s writing style draws adolescents in because she connects Maleeka’s plight to the common angst of being a teenager:  fitting in.  Whether it is weight, clothes, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or color, teens have to deal with something about them that disqualifies them to be a part of the popular clique.  Flake’s use of the vernacular also engages adolescents more into the storyline.  My students enjoyed the tension between Maleeka and Char, Maleeka’s “friend.”

An assignment that I had my students do after reading this novel was a collage of their definition of beauty.  The various, visual interpretations amazed me and became a counter narrative to the message society advocates.







Text-to-Text Connections (The following novels and short story collection deal with self-image, race,mixed race, and transgender adolescents.  They would be perfect to pair up with The Skin I’m In  because the characters in each book struggle with balancing or negating society’s perceptions of them.)

step to this  Step to This by Nikki Carter


flavor of the weekFlavor of the Week by Tucker Shaw


you are freeYou Are Free:  Stories by Danzy Senna


skinnySkinny by Ibi Kaslik


shrink to fitShrink to Fit  Dona Sarkar


luna-julie-anne-peters2 Luna    Julie Anne Peters



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Setting the Mood for Literacy Learning through YAL & Theme-Based Literate Environments

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images

Their lives, fears, needs, dreams

THEIR objectives, tests, demands

Meeting ground needed.

There lies the conundrum.

The Power of Words

Struggling literacy learners enter my room already wrapped in a cocoon filled with negative experiences in reading and writing and with educational labels attempting to define them.  As their teacher for the school year, my job is to give them the tools to emerge as literacy learners.  This ten-month journey begins with recognizing and harnessing the power of words.  Struggling readers and writers develop an aversion to literacy because words have become a mystery and a hindrance to them.  They have not cracked the code.  They tend to ask questions such as “Why I gotta read or write this?”

The purpose and the process of literacy have eluded them.  Amidst their problems with decoding, comprehending, composing, and other literacy skills, some struggling literacy learners have not found an author or a writing topic that has titillated their desire to read or write.  They seek initiation into the “literacy club” where their peers laugh at and discuss books or reign words into well-crafted writing.

They know words are powerful because their daily struggle with them has resulted in a wall of resistance against literacy learning.  The words themselves have forged the outer shells of their cocoons.  Standardized assessments, teachers’ comments and (mis)perceptions, constant academic failure, and sometimes peers’ ridicule have assailed struggling readers and writers and created their lack of confidence in literacy learning.

Whether positive or negative, words carry energy and evoke memories.  When struggling literacy learners enter my room, they will still associate reading and writing with their past experiences.  “The written and spoken word determines what we do in life and how we do it.”  (Iyanla Vanzant, One Day My Soul Opened Up)

The written and spoken word can also hinder struggling readers and writers.  Negative experiences enable them to concede to defeat when it comes to literacy learning.  As a language arts teacher, I want my students to gain back their confidence.  Theme-based literate environments allow me to utilize the classroom as a tool for setting change into motion.

Elements of a Theme-Based Literate Environment

When people enter a pleasant home or restaurant, the ambience—the arrangement of furniture, the array of paintings, collectibles, and plants, the aroma of meals, scented candles, or air fresheners, and the feeling of positive energy radiating throughout the place—surrounds them with warmth and invitation.  They feel comfortable and relaxed in being themselves with no noticeable threats to the peaceful environment they have entered.  The mood of the home or restaurant solicits conversations, celebrations, and memories.

As avid readers or aspiring writers stroll through Barnes & Noble, the literary atmosphere instantly mesmerizes them with mahogany cases filled with books.  Bookstores contain oversized chairs sporadically spaced and cozy cafes alive with conversation.  Budding writers find refuge and inspiration as they perfect their craft in the company of hallowed authors.  These places become literary havens where people lose themselves inside literacy.

The elements of the places described above characterize the concept of theme-based literate environments.  Students should be able to walk into a soothing setting with several selections of texts, snug chairs and pillows to sit on, and invitations to be themselves as readers and writers.  An abundance of print and non-print texts, ranging from picture books and audiotapes to young adult literature and nonfiction (and if funds permit, digital texts), are present to whet their appetites.

Theme-based Literate Environments Contain the Following:

  •  A multitude of learning experiences requiring students to question, evaluate, experience and appreciate all types of texts
  • An underlying theme evident through classroom décor and ambience
  • A central guiding question that ties together the course concepts
  • A sense of flexibility in movement of classroom furniture and students
  • A reflection of students’ interests
  • A collaborative framework of student and teacher input
  • An ample supply and implementation of young  adult literature

Looking at the Concept in Action

During the course of my teaching career, I have created several theme-based literate environments.  The themes have ranged from coffeehouses, gardens, oceans, boutiques, and safaris.  I have painted bookcases to reflect the themes, and bought butterfly chairs, body pillows, and bean bag chairs for independent reading areas.

I have decorated wall with fabric designed with parrots to convey my safari theme and hung up curtains behind a writing conference table with candles in glass bowls and a tablecloth to accentuate my boutique theme.  Along with the infectious nature of the classroom, I bring a positive energy into the classroom.  If teachers enjoy what they do, their attitude will rub off on their students.

I have had students who were considered lost causes blossom in these environments.  Olivia* (pseudonym) used her writer’s notebook as a place to record her feelings about living with her dad and his new wife.  She copied down their conversations and conveyed her emotions through poetry and song lyrics from favorite artists.  We wrote to each other in her notebook about her feelings.  These snippets of life formed the basis of personal narratives and stories she composed in the writing workshops.

Writer’s notebooks became a literate space where reading and writing informed each other’s practices.  In class, she used her freedom of expression to write about her life.  She volunteered more in whole class discussions.  Her face brightened, a better alternative to the saddened eyes she once had.   My theme-based literate environment coaxed a timid girl out of her shell and invited her to participate in literacy learning.

Alex* (pseudonym) was an eighth grade student who read on a second grade level.  He never completed a book on his own.  Through interactive word walls, read-alouds, literature discussion groups, learning centers, and differentiated instruction, Alex gained confidence in reading.  At Open House, he expressed his newfound interest in Walter Dean Myers’ book, Monster.  This student, who is described as a Level 1 reader, told everyone every detail of the book and explained how the book had changed his life.  His parents approached me after the event and expressed their gratitude.  Alex was reading more of Myers’ books with confidence.

Sometimes the classroom environment is just as important as the curriculum in literacy learning.

Other YAL Suggestions for Struggling Readers

Step to This  Nikki Carter

Who Am I Without Him?: Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in Their Lives  Sharon Flake

The Misfits  James Howe

Tangerine  Edward Bloor

Conception  by Kalisha Buckhanon

Domino Falls  by Tananarive Due & Steven Barnes

Green Angel  Alice Hoffman

Artichoke’s Heart  Suzanne Supplee

Bucking the Sarge Christopher Paul Curtis

Jason & Kyra  Dana Davidson

Tears of a Tiger Sharon Draper

Forged by Fire  Sharon Draper

Born Blue   Hans Nolan

If You Come Softly   Jacqueline Woodson

Hush   Jacqueline Woodson

Slam! Walter Dean Meyers

Make Lemonade V. Wolff

True Believer V. Wolff

Pushing Pause  Celeste Norfleet

Shortie Like Mine  NiNi Simone

Seedfolks  Paul Fleischmann

YALSA’s annual list http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/quickpicks/2013

Teacher Resources for Building Literate Environments

A Time for Meaning:  Crafting Literate Lives in Middle & High School by Randy Bomer

Literacy in the Secondary Classroom:  Strategies for Teaching the Way Kids Learn  L. Meeks & C. Austin

Reconceptualizing the Literacies in Adolescents’ Lives  by Donna Alvermann et al


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When Your Back Is Against the Wall, What Else Are You Gonna Do Except Hustle?: Tyrell by Coe Booth

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images


By Alexandra Caselle

Extra! Extra!

Read all about it!

Urban schools

are failing, failing, failing!

People, people,

What must be done?

Our kids can’t read or

write ; they can’t do math.

Man, please.

I know how to read and write.

I know that 2 + 2 =4.

I am not illiterate.

See, where I come from

2 + 2 don’t always equal 4.

It equals me getting shot

if I walk on a certain set

or getting beat down for

what I wear, who I associate

with, or where I live.

I know how to read words.

I sometimes comprehend what I read.

But, I also know how to “read” life.

I got to “read” guys standing on

the block trying to find out if

they are trying to be down with me

or use or abuse me.

I got to “read” the cops patrolling

my hood, trying to figure out

if they are really trying to serve

and protect or are they trying

to put another brother in the clank.

I got to worry about if my mama

is coming home tonight or if

I  have to feed my little brother

and be both parents

and on top of that handle being

a kid my damn self.

Oh, yeah.  I know how to write.

But, writing on some bs topic about

why the principal should enforce uniforms

doesn’t help me.

Let me write about why society

doesn’t erase the class boundaries that

make junkies and the homeless

roam aimlessly.

Let me write about the importance

of daddies sticking around so

their daughters don’t seek love inside

a fifteen minute sexual excursion

instead of themselves.

I know I need to get the skills

needed to survive in the real world

and gain my e-co-nom-ic  mo-bil-i-ty.

But, every time I look around you telling

me how I am failing and I’m trying to push

all these obstacles out of my way.

And now you wanna wonder why so

many of us are dropping out.

You hear those bells ringin’?

Class is over.

tyrellBooth, Coe. Tyrell. Push: 2007. 978-0-439-83880-1.

Tyrell is facing a lot to be only fifteen years old.  His father has been sent to jail for the third time.  His mother is not the poster child for the typical parent.  She wants him to get out on the streets and hustle to bring in income.  The burden of taking care of his young brother falls squarely on his shoulders.  To add to the family drama, he has girl trouble.  A new girl, Jasmine, poses a threat to his relationship to Novisha.  But he discovers that Novisha may have some skeletons in her closet that may destroy his trust in her.  Will Tyrell succumb to the sway of the streets?

I truly enjoyed reading this book.  I had used this book as a read-aloud with 11th & 12th grade struggling readers who had failed the state assessment exam several times.  They connected to Tyrell’s story and looked forward to hearing about what happened next every day.  Some of these kids abhorred reading.  A book was the other four-letter word just like pork was the other white meat.  But Booth pulled the students into the narrative.

Tyrell is a gritty tale that includes some mature scenes.  With the read aloud format, I could skillfully skip over those sections and maintain the students’ interests.  Since my classes had no set curriculum, I read aloud young adult novels as an opening exercise for my classes.  It gave me an opportunity to model reading strategies, teach vocabulary, and hone comprehension skills.  I often created tests based on the read aloud books because I believed in the interconnections among curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

 I specifically chose Tyrell for another reason.  It highlighted the broader definition of literacy that our students function in today.  Learning the basic tenets of literacy such as reading, writing, and mathematics is very important.  Literacy also entails technology and discourses.  According to James P. Gee, author of Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses, literacy is a type of a discourse.  A discourse can be defined as ways of reading, writing, acting, believing, thinking, etc.

With school literacy (reading, writing), there is a certain way to interact with text.  Within one’s neighborhood, church, family, workplace, culture, or society itself, there is a certain way to act, believe, think, etc.   All of those literacies impact our students, and we should embrace those other types of literacies in our classroom as a stepping stone toward guiding our students to the mastery of school literacy.

Tyrell is an excellent example of how different types of literacies or discourses impact an adolescent.

Text-to-Text Connections

upstate Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon  This epistolary novel describes the relationship between a young girl and her boyfriend and how his imprisonment changes both of them. I used this novel as a read aloud as well and used the epistolary format to teach different reading skills and reinforce vocabulary development.

bronxmasq  Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes  This multigenre novel blends poetry and narrative to tell the stories behind each chapter’s character.  Adolescent readers see how domestic violence and other social issues affect young people.  This is another great choice for a read aloud because the chapters are short and it works well for teaching different reading strategies.

bees  The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd  Lily and Tyrell are connected by the impact their circumstances make on them.  Both live with one parent, and Lily’s father and Tyrell’s mom are cut from the same cloth.  One can’t say that kneeling in grits for a long period of time will not distract a child from learning the three R’s.  Adolescent readers also learn the discourse of sorrow as they read about May’s wailing wall.

firstpartlast The First Part Last by Angela Johnson  Being a teenage father is hard enough.  Raising a young daughter alone because her mother is no longer there is even harder.  This is the dilemma that Bobby faces as he takes care of Feather.  Johnson’s narrative style of alternating chapters between the past and present engrosses reader into Bobby’s life.

Teaching Exercise for Tyrell

This exercise depicts a scene that did not occur in the novel.  I used the cloze technique (removing words from a passage and requiring students to use clues within the passage to choose the correct word) to assess students’ understanding of the weekly vocabulary words. In the upcoming weeks, I will begin posting short stories that will teach a vocabulary word, a reading skill, or literary term because I believe that stories can teach concepts.

Directions:  Choose the word from the list below that will best complete the sentences.






Novisha was angry with Tyrell.  Her girlfriend, Tasha, stayed at the same hotel.  She saw Tyrell walk into Jasmine’s room.  She called Novisha on her cell phone and told her what she had seen.  Novisha cried at first. Then she wanted to believe that Tyrell would not cheat on her.  She felt (1) ______________.  Novisha caught the subway over to the hotel.  On her way there, she noticed several people from different countries on the train.  They were (2) __________________from their homelands.  Even though she was mad at Tyrell, Novisha felt badly about them leaving without choice.  Novisha got off at her stop.  She showed (3) _______________ as she walked quickly down the sidewalk with her Timberland boots, Apple Bottom jeans, and matching Apple Bottom sweater.  She went inside the building and found her friend in the hallway.  Tasha pointed to room 207.  Novisha cracked her knuckles and popped her neck. The door was slightly cracked.  She threw it open and cried about the sight before her.  Tyrell and Jasmine were kissing each other passionately.  They did not notice Novisha at all.

Tasha took off her earrings and put her hair in a ponytail.  “Oh, no!  Girl, let’s beat both of them up!”  Tyrell and Jasmine looked up.  Tyrell stumbled toward Novisha.  Novisha slapped him so hard that she left her handprint on his jaw.  Jasmine got mad and shoved Novisha.  Tasha jumped in and the girls started to fight.  While they fought, Novisha (4) _______________the room and looked for more signs of Tyrell’s unfaithfulness.  Tyrell saw his chance to (5)_____________the drama.  He paused at the door and smirked at the girls.  It made him feel good to see three chicks fighting over him.   Today was a good day.


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Supernatural Synergy of the Adolescent Kind–Manifest: A Mystyx Novel by Artist Arthur

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images

It reverberates

throughout her inner being

Calling, connecting.

–By Alexandra Caselle


Arthur, Artist. Manifest:  A Mystyx Novel. $9.99. Kimani Tru/Kimani
Press: 2010. 978-0-373-83196-8.  
People always say to beware of things that look good on the outside. One never knows the hang ups that are inside.  But why does this cute guy who suddenly appears in fifteen-year-old Krystal’s life has to be a ghost?  Some boys don’t shower or have bad breath.  But who has ever heard of a boy who is part of the undead? And the undead wants her to find his murderer.

It is bad enough that her parents have divorced, her mother remarries, and she is in a new school. Now she is the teen Long Island medium.  As Krystal struggles with this newfound power, she discovers other teens at her school, Sasha and Jake, who possess the powers of teleportation and telekinesis.  Now they want her to acclimate to her new power as if she were just adjusting to a change of clothing or hairstyle.

Arthur includes new and old ways of communication such as texting and letters from someone in the past to pull middle and high school readers into the plot.  In the middle of all of this mayhem in Krystal’s life, there is the mysterious power that may not only threaten her but everyone around her.

This novel gives adolescents an African American paranormal heroine and charts her journey of coming-of-age and coming into her powers. They will identify with her plight of accepting what makes her different as a gift instead of a curse and dealing with the real-life changes that occur in most families today.

Text-to-Text Connections

blood magic  Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton  Reese and Silla have family problems of a different kind than what Krystal endures.  Their parents were killed in a murder-suicide.  The whole town thinks that they are crazy,too.  Well, piercing her finger and using the blood to conjure up the supernatural doesn’t help change public consensus.  Silla discovers her father’s journal and begins experimenting with spells.  The “blood magic” rituals catches the attention of Josephine, a centuries-old ghost who is not to be crossed.

good houseThe Good House by Tanarive Due It is often heard that the sins of the father become the sins of the children, and that which is in the dark always come into the light.  For Angela Touissant, she discovers how one person’s actions can have a detrimental, generational impact on her family.  She returns to her grandmother’s home to reconcile her own family, but she ends up challenging a formaidable spirit that may be more detrimental than the loss of her son.  Due’s narrative style will send chills up adolescent readers’ spines as her details make them feel like they are standing right beside Angela as she faces evil incarnate.

Due’s short story, “Summer,” would be another chilling work to pair with Manifest.  http://nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/summer/

bad to cursedFrom Bad to Cursed  by Katie Alender  With the name like the Sunshine Club, an adolescent girl would think that this club was harmless.  All of the girls who join it become popular and beautiful overnight.  Everyone would die to be in their shoes.  In order to be a Sunshine girl, a girl literally would die.  Behind the chillingly bright smiles is a psychic connection to a force known as Aralt.  Unfortuantely for Alexis, she has already had enough of the supernatural.  She and her sister Katie just survived Katie’s ghostly possession.  Alexis and her friend, Megan infiltrate the group in hopes of saving her sister, but Alexis soon finds out how easy it is to get the “devil” in her.

sea rising red  When The Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen  Vampires, magic, competing royal houses—When The Sea is Rising Red is a novel that blends fantasy, the paranormal, and the fantastic into an intriguing tale of one girl’s desire to buck tradition and live life according to her rules.  Felicita is born into one of the richest ruling classes in Pelimburg.  When her best friend, Ilven, commits suicide right before she is betrothed, Felicita runs away to the mainland and tries to shed her royal ties.  The further she gets away from home, the less power she has.  The scriven dust is the root of her power and her family is the only one who manufactures it.  As she juggles her growing interest in Jannik, a vampire who also struggles with family tradition, and Dash, the mainland’s bad boy, Felicita begins to realize the true impact of Ilven’s suicide and the true identity of the sea spirit that threatens the land.

mama day Mama Day by Gloria Naylor  Set in an island off the coast of Georgia, this novel again shows the impact of one’s actions on a family’s lineage.  Mama Day is a force to be reckoned with, a conjure woman who can cause lightning to strike with one wave of her stick.  But the beauty of Naylor’s work is how she uses the supernatural to make social commentary.  Her work is reminiscent of the late Octavia Butler’s style, whose novels Kindred and Wild Seed can also be used with Arthur’s Manifest.

Manifest is the first of the Mystyx series.  Read more about these mysterious teens who share powers that are out of this world.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a supernatural power and to be connected to someone through it?  Oh wait, we do.  As part of the human race, we are connected by the power of love.

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Urban Rhapsody: The Love Song of Cyan and Kendall ( Serial Story #1)

cyan & kendall


He cradled my face into the curve of his neck, filling my nose with his Escape cologne.  Our bodies swayed in sync to the slow jams being played in Houlihan Middle School’s gym.  This had to be the most perfect night of my life.  He casually lifted my chin.

My girls, Arisha, Kemba, and Nia eyed me with so much jealousy.  I smirked with my signature half-grin because I had it like that.  Kendall always dealt with the finest in everything.

The guy brushed my hair back behind my ears and moved his lips closer and closer.  I remained calm, even though inside, I was mentally checking to see if those breath mints kicked halitosis to sleep and if my cherry-flavored lip gloss still painted my thin lips.

Goosebumps scaled my spine.  I couldn’t believe it.  My first kiss.  And it would be from my favorite hip hop singer.  My mind screamed with anticipation. My arms wrapped tightly around his neck and my face as cool as a cucumber because I had to represent myself as a sophisticated young lady.

Okay, it was about to happen.  I braced myself for the impact.  My girls told me that kissing a boy made the earth shake.  The bile in my stomach was the only thing moving.

He slipped further and further away from me as blood curdling wails erupted from Jamila’s mouth, awakening me from my deep slumber.  It’s amazing how her two-year old lungs could expel so much air and noise.  I threw back the covers and grimaced.

That little twerp interrupted my dream. Her cries pierced the air again.  “No go, Mama!”

My fists clenched against my waist.  Cyan must be packing her overnight bags for one of her weekend trips.  It figures.  We do not see eye-to-eye on everything.  I wondered if the same guy I met last month would accompany her this weekend.  It’s always a different one.

Don’t get me wrong.  My mom was not one of those chicken heads with a sparse head of hair brushed up in one ponytail with gold teeth in her mouth and four-inch fingernails.  She did work double shifts at Walmart during the week and took pride in her looks.

Cyan just didn’t have her priorities straight.  She always came first, leaving me behind to serve as a surrogate mother to my younger sister and brother.  I cooked their meals, wiped their noses, washed everyone’s clothes, and nursed cuts.

It’s bad enough that she travels so frequently, but it broke the little ones’ hearts because they needed their mom.  Even though I’m growing up, I needed her, too.

I stormed into my mama’s bedroom and saw Jamila’s arms locked around my mama’s legs.  Tears streamed down her face and landed on her nightgown.

Cyan, oblivious to her pleading, gazed in front of the mirror and applied her makeup. “Jamila, get off me.  No need to cry because I ain’t staying.”

She lined her eyes and smacked her lips as she winked with approval.  She could at least comfort the girl.  That was what normal mothers do, for crying out loud.

I said, “Why don’t you stay home sometimes?”

My mama angled her body in front of mine.  The scent of nicotine tickled my lungs.  “A little ‘me’ time.  Can I get that, Kendall?”

A burst of adrenalin robbed me of my common sense. I straightened my back and matched my mom’s gaze with one of my own. “Can I get a little time to be a thirteen-year-old, Cyan?”

My mother said, “I see we are on a first-name basis, now.  When did you become grown?”

Judging by her response, I knew I had crossed the line of respect with her.  Part of me prayed that I could make it through the rest of the night with my life.  The other part didn’t care.

Copyrighted and All Rights Reserved to Alexandra Caselle.  This is an original young adult story.

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No Color, No Gender, Nothing Can Hold Her Back: Flygirl By Sherri L. Smith

FLYGIRLSmith, Sherri L.  Flygirl.  $7.99.  Penguin Books/Speak: 2008. 978-0-14-241725-6.   Ida is one determined eighteen-year-old.  Tired of living on her family’s farm, collecting silk stockings, and cleaning houses, she feels the open sky calling her.  Flying is in her blood.  Her father flew crop duster planes when he was alive and taught her how to fly.  Her brother was already serving as a WWII medic.  It is her time to shine.  But race and color pose a problem.  Well, not for people like Ida.

Ida’s drive and determination enables her to devise a plan.  She would pass as white and join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) organization.  Ida succeeds and adapts to the culture and expectations of the organization.  But she realizes passing comes with a price.  She alienates herself from her best friend, Jolene.

She strains her relationship with her mother, especially when Ida has to refer to her mother as a housekeeper during a family visit to the field. Ida consistently has to stay in character and wear a mask.  Every part of her charade must be intact because one little slip-up could betray her real identity.  Can you imagine having to hold it together?  The lines from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” come to mind http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html :

                               Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

In the skies, Ida doesn’t have to worry about the farce.  Her ability to handle a plane is what matters.  The sky symbolizes freedom.  It provides the catalyst for her to be who she really is.

womanlutionpress logo(Clip art designed by Mike Smith)

Middle grade and adolescent readers will constantly wonder if Ida will be discovered as they engage in the storyline.  Through Smith’s deft development and description of Ida’s character, readers will want to emulate this strong teen.

Discovering Its Educational Value

Text-to-Text Connections

Here are just a few classic, contemporary, and young adult novels that could be paired with Flygirl:

  • Product DetailsTsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions–a postcolonial novel African novel set in Rhodesia that deals with a young girl trying to come of age under the scope of European expectations of beauty and gender. It can be tied into Ida’s ruse of trying to fit in with the WASPs by passing white and how it affects her and her relationships. http://www.wmich.edu/dialogues/texts/nervousconditions.html
  • Product DetailsSharon Flake, Money Hungry— a young adult novel that traces Raspberry’s ambition to earn money any way she can despite her circumstances.  Her drive and determination mirror Ida’s. http://www.sharongflake.com/books/money/

Educational Resources

These resources give additional information that ties into the historical connections within Flygirl:

What other novels, stories, and/or memoirs can you think of that feature women or young teens who have the drive and determination that Ida possesses?


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